Editorial: In the public interest, it’s time to update the public records law

Posted 3/1/23

Setting aside journalists and citizen watchdogs, most people don’t care about public records laws — until they do care. When they find themselves in a land dispute with a neighbor, preparing a legal defense for their son’s disputed arrest, or questioning why a school district is building a new school instead of renovating an old one, they will care a lot about public records laws.

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Editorial: In the public interest, it’s time to update the public records law

Posted

Setting aside journalists and citizen watchdogs, most people don’t care about public records laws — until they do care.

When they find themselves in a land dispute with a neighbor, preparing a legal defense for their son’s disputed arrest, or questioning why a school district is building a new school instead of renovating an old one, they will care a lot about public records laws. Their experiences can vary widely, depending on the nature of the records they seek, the culture of the agency they’re dealing with, or even the training of the specific employee standing at the gate of public information.

In all those situations, the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act is everyone’s ally. The law gives citizens the right to seek public records, and it gives public officials a guide to which records are public, and which records might not be. Though the law is sweeping, it is not perfect. As time goes on, citizen vs. government disputes reveal where there may be flaws in the law, and advances in technology demand tweaks and updates.

Accordingly, a group of advocates is hoping to amend the state’s public records law for the first time in a decade. Their array of changes are championed by Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown) in the Rhode Island Senate and Rep. Joseph Solomon (D-Warwick) in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

In general, the proposed changes reflect what most people might assume are the standards for public records. They clear up language that might have been subject to different interpretations, or they modernize the law to reflect a 2023 reality.

As a member of one of the sponsoring groups (Rhode Island Press Association) and led by a board member of another sponsoring group (General Manager Scott Pickering and AccessRI), East Bay Media Group is a staunch proponent of the bills (S-0420 and H-5454) that would make smart updates to the Access to Public Records Act. We believe the changes are reasonable, practical and in the highest and best interests of the public. They help preserve our democracy, keeping government open, transparent and accountable to its citizens.

For those interested in the actual changes being proposed, following is a primer of everything noteworthy in the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) proposal. The proposed bill:

  • Makes it clear that campus police forces are also subject to the law.
  • Removes language saying that “all records of attorney-client relationship” are exempt from disclosure, and changes it to “all records protected by the attorney-client privilege.” This was relevant in a recent case where the Barrington School Department refused to release records detailing how much it spent on a legal case that it appealed all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.
  • Clarifies how a police officer’s “narrative report” of someone’s arrest is public.
  • Makes public the investigative reports of internal affairs units of any agency, with protections against “unwarranted invasions of personal privacy” and with deference to the Police Officers Bill of Rights.
  • Makes public the footage from police-worn body cameras, and makes the release of videos associated with “use of force” mandatory within 30 days, even if an investigation is ongoing.
  • Makes public the emails from or to public officials, acting in their official capacity, unless there is “no demonstrable connection to the exercise of official acts or duties.”
  • Allows the public to access investigatory records if they can demonstrate “good cause” for their release. This would presumably be determined by the Attorney General or a Rhode Island court.
  • Makes public any subpoenas issued to public officials or bodies relating to their official duties.
  • Requires agencies that withhold records to explain why they’re withholding them, and to state how disclosure would damage those interests that are being protected.
  • Requires that documents to be discussed at a public meeting, be posted on the Secretary of State’s website along with the agenda for that meeting.
  • Requires that any document “reviewed, considered or submitted” at a public meeting shall be considered public and made available to anyone who requests it at that meeting. This would negate a common practice where government bodies review, discuss and sometimes vote on issues while looking at documents that their audience cannot see.
  • Requires government agencies to post a link to their public records procedures on the home page of their website.
  • Makes it clear that a public body must accept a records request in all forms: in-person, mail, fax or email.
  • In the event that someone submits a records request to the wrong person within a government body, makes it clear that the recipient must forward the request to the proper person; it also gives the public body an additional five days to respond to such a request.
  • If requesting additional time to respond to a records request, requires a public body to explain why that extra time is necessary.
  • Allows only the requester to waive response time requirements.
  • Rejects “unavailability” of a qualified records officer as a reason to withhold or delay release of records.
  • Allows agencies the option to release records electronically when feasible.
  • Prevents public bodies from using a third-party contract or relationship as a valid reason to withhold public records.
  • Reduces the potential charge for printing or copying public records from 15 cents per page to 5 cents per page.
  • Makes it clear that bodies cannot charge for redactions within public records.
  • Raises the potential fines for “knowing and willful” violations of APRA from $2,000 to $10,000 and for “reckless violations” from $1,000 to $3,000. It also opens the door for court-imposed sanctions on public bodies of $100 per day, plus compensatory and punitive damages.
  • Requires the Attorney General to publish on a searchable electronic database all APRA complaints and actions taken by their office.
  • Allows for 911 calls, or calls for emergency services, to be made public upon a showing of good cause; upon request of a court; or upon request by the person who placed the call, any person heard on the call who was communicating with emergency personnel, or by the person who was the subject of the call.

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Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.